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“AT any moment, this music will raise numerous questions. Is it Vietnamese? Or jazz? Or traditional music, blues, African, Indian … is it written — or is it improvised?”
These questions are asked by the guitarist Nguyen Le within the sleeve notes of his extraordinary album with the “traditional” musician also from Vietnam, Ngo Hong Quang.
Le was born in Paris in 1959 of Vietnamese parents and has spent a jazz life within two often powerfully contesting traditions.
An inheritor of Vietnam’s enduringly beautiful musical conventions and forms, yet he has lived within an entirely contrary musical culture too, among the European and US sounds and songs that have defined “pop” culture.
In his album Songs of Freedom he brings together some of these songs, from Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Lennon and McCartney, and proclaims in his sleeve notes: “Yet the music is like a bird: once released, it flies to every sky. The Earth becomes rounder and rounder, inviting cultures to mingle and soak up one another. Let’s sing the flow of our crossed-over world!”
This “cross-over world” is at the heart of Le’s jazz and his Ha Noi Duo album with Ngo Hong Quang and his Vietnamese fiddle, lute and Jew’s harp also brings in a number of brilliant guests including the Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, the Indian tabla virtuoso Prabhu Edouard and Mieko Miyazaki of Japan on koto. It is sounds of the world, fused in one, with Le’s own acoustic and electric guitars.
The opener is Cloud Chamber. The Indian tablas roll and the Vietnamese strings are plucked against the Parisian skies before Fresu’s beautiful Mediterranean horn blows out its chorus.
Nations and their separate musics are absorbed into the oneness of this sound, and Five Senses — a tune written by Le the jazzman — as he puts it in his notes, becomes “transformed by the timbres and accents of traditional Asian instruments.” What a sonic mix is here!
In Like Mountain Birds, Quang’s vocal has wings to carry it skywards after Le’s almost forlorn guitar opening, as if his notes are the waiting earth below, pleading for this bird to return.
The acoustic lucidity of Le’s guitar picks its way through the love song, A Night With You, Gone.
As Fresu enters, distantly, like a lamentation, you know this must be the lovers’ last meeting.
Quang’s Jew’s harp quivers behind his voice at the beginning of The Graceful Seal and Le’s quasi-blueslike guitar cries out, grounded by percussion and set on fire by Fresu’s solo.
Then on to Quang’s tune dedicated to the Tay mountain people of Vietnam, Heaven’s Gourd, in which Le plays his “north African-sounding acoustic guitar,” thus invoking the sound of yet another continent and Le’s 1998 album Maghreb and Friends.
Chiec Khan Pieu, a song from the ’70s, with Prabhu’s pounding tablas, then Le’s rocking guitar chorus and Fresu’s far-sounding horn creating an amalgam of civilisations and continents, and Monkey Queen, written by Le for the Monkey festival, gives full precedence to Quang’s virtuoso performance with the single-stringed Vietnamese instrument, the Dan Bau.
How can such melodic beauty and complexity ring with such power from a single string?
In the 14th century in the north of Vietnam, nomadic blind beggars established the Xam style of performance, which Le links to the southern Mississippi blues.
Ironic that the musical forms of two such erstwhile bitter 20th-century enemies could have found such harmony in their music, but such is the marvel of jazz, expressed with such poignancy in Beggar’s Love Song.
The record ends in the serenity of the northern Vietnamese sound picture of Silently Grows the Rice. I thought of Ho Chi Minh’s prison poem Pastoral Scene, but also reflected on Le’s final sleeve sentences: “Like threads of silk, cultures from yesterday and today weave a complex and diverse beauty … a part of the essence of Vietnam with its millennial roots, its tormented past and its future full of hope. They also take us to the heart of life itself.”
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